By Sugeeswara Senadhira/Daily News
Colombo, December 4: There is a popular saying that “Justice delayed is justice denied” and apparently a major reason for last week’s prison riots that claimed the lives of 11 prisoners and injured scores of inmates and prison guards is the prevalent overcrowding of prisons with remand prisoners awaiting court verdicts for long.
There is an imperative for judicial reforms with the expansion of courts to ensure dispensation of early justice. Last week, at a time when the dark shadows of prison riots loomed, a welcome development took place with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointing six Judges to the Supreme Court and 14 to the Court of Appeal, thus marking another milestone in the judicial history of the country.
This became possible as the 20th Amendment to the Constitution allowed an increase in the number of judges. The judicial cadre in both the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal had remained static since the enactment of the Second Republican Constitution in 1978. Although the necessity of increasing the number of judges in the Superior Courts has been mooted several times in the past, the number of judges in both courts has remained the same for over 40 years.
There have been many advancements in the sphere of law in recent decades. Litigation has increased exponentially during the last 40 years. However, there has not been a corresponding increase in the number of judges.
“It is therefore a matter of pride that our Government has redressed this long felt need through the 20th Amendment to the Constitution,” President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said.
“Amongst the many reasons that prompted this change is the perennial problem of the law’s delays. Unfortunately, it is clear that while more and more cases were being instituted in the Superior Courts, there was insufficient judicial manpower to hear them fast and dispense justice. This was not a situation conducive to public confidence, nor to the proper functioning of the republic,” he said.
Addressing the newly appointed judges, the President pledged to support the independence of the judiciary and ensure its functioning free of politicization and other forms of interference. Access to justice is a fundamental right. It is the sacred duty and obligation of the State to provide an enabling environment to make that right real and not imaginary. Access to justice must be transparent if the people are to have confidence and faith in the judicial system.
“Whether we perform our role within the Executive, the Legislature or the Judiciary, we are all custodians of that faith. We hold our office in trust for the people. As judges, the people look to you to uphold the immense dignity of your high office, to discharge your duties with integrity and independence, and to ensure that justice is dispensed equitably to all,” the President told the judges.
The President also referred to unsavory attempts to tarnish the judiciary, a sacrosanct institution. He said it is a matter of some concern that there has been an onslaught on the dignity and independence of legal systems.
“The judiciary must also rise and use its powers to fight this menace. Freedom of speech is not a license to defame and malign anyone, least of all judges,” he pointed out and added, “We as a Government stand prepared to support you in every way necessary to achieve the objective of administering an efficient, equitable and independent judicial system.”
This commitment applies to the uplift of the dilapidated courtrooms throughout the country, assistance in digitizing the laborious manual processes to enhance efficiency, and providing greater funding for the training of personnel in the judicial system, together with other identified requirements.
“Through this, and through your efficient and judicious discharge of your grave responsibilities, I am confident that we will be able to achieve a lasting beneficial transformation of the judicial system in Sri Lanka,” the President said.
The prison riots also brought home the need for further prison reforms. The Government, saddled with the unenviable task of eliminating crimes masterminded by imprisoned convicts and remand prisoners, commenced a top down strategy by a shake-up of prison officials earlier this year. This step was taken after it was revealed that the illicit possession and use of mobile telephones by prison inmates was becoming a major issue. Prisoners were reportedly using illicitly acquired mobile telephones to make calls to give instructions about their criminal activities.
Several prison officers were interdicted for attempting to smuggle in mobile phones for the incarcerated inmates. The strict measures came after senior prison officials were admonished by President Rajapaksa and strong warnings were given to the Department of Prisons by Defense Secretary, Major General (rtd.) Kamal Gunaratne. A clean and untainted prison system is required and all inmates must be treated equally, he said and added that prison officials guilty of helping convicts to carry out criminal activities would be severely punished. He said if officers continue to engage in wrongful acts, investigations will be launched, adding that certain officers are already under the scrutiny of the Criminal Investigations Department (CID).Attorney General Dappula De Livera also slammed the Department of Prisons for allowing the prison system to become a hotbed of criminals and criminal syndicates.
“Serious crimes in Sri Lanka are organized from within prison walls. The underworld has found itself inside the prisons and they operate from within and outside the prison walls. They work together and commit serious crimes in the country,” De Livera said.
Following these stern warnings and change of high prison officials, many reforms were enacted and hardened criminals who controlled some prison cells with their money-power or by intimidation were transferred to distant prisons and kept in isolation.
The shakeup among the prison guards is a part of the overall operation of elimination of criminal gangs. Simultaneously, a major crackdown directed at the underworld has been underway. Dozens of hard-core criminals in various parts of the country have been rounded up.
The detention of large number of persons who violated health regulations and the curfew enforced due to the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in overcrowding of prisons once again. Presidential pardon given to hundreds of remand prisoners is expected to reduce the overcrowding.
Considering the importance of prison reforms, a new State Minister has been appointed to handle the subject. Lohan Ratwatte took oaths on Wednesday (December 2) as State Minister for Prison Administration and Rehabilitation of Prisoners.
The appointment of new judges will help speed up trials in the top two courts in the country. The efficient administration of justice is not only important in terms of upholding the rule of law, it is also vital for the economic development of this nation. Reliable, efficient and effective dispute resolution through the justice system will foster the nation’s progress. “I consider it a signal honor to administer oaths to such a galaxy of men and women so learned in the law,” President Rajapaksa said underlining the importance of this step.